“The body won’t go where the mind has not gone to first”
Although primarily used in athletics, visualization is a tool that has powerful applications in personal development. In this post, I’ll be describing what visualization is, how it works, and how you can essentially re-architect your life using it.
Personal development is akin to re-creating yourself; And there is much to be said about the importance of the mind in that creation. The fact is, before any physical object can be created there must have first been a mental creation. The car you drive in, the elevator you take up to your office, the computer you’re reading this from — each of these have been created in someone’s mind long before they appeared in their physical form.
Just like physical objects, architecting the physical expression of yourself must also first be done in your mind. And visualization is a perfect tool for that purpose.
Visualization is very powerful because it can physiologically mimic a true sensory experience without any actual external stimuli. Athletes have used it for decades to acquire or practice complex motor skills, rehearse routines to create muscle memory, and develop a greater sense of self-awareness.
My first experience with the power of visualization happened during high school when I competed in gymnastics. I was training for an upcoming meet and was trying to learn a particularly difficult skill on the parallel bars. After a number of failures (and bad falls) my coach had me sit down, relax, and picture first in my mind how that skill would look if someone else were to do it. After he was sure I could see how it worked, he then had me (in my mind) go into my body and see myself doing the skill, experiencing exactly how it would feel in my body as I went through the move’s release, twist, and catch and then finally balancing the handstand.
The key was I had to be able to intently feel what my body would experience: the tremors in my wrists as I was balancing and adjusting the handstand, the feeling of the blood rushing to my head, the wind on my body as I swung through the air and so on. When I could finally feel what was happening, he then had me try it again.
This time I nailed it.
How Visualization Works
Before we go into how you can use visualization to re-architect your life, let’s take a quick look into how it works. There are two main theories that explain how this happens:
This theory basically says that vivid, imagined events create the same neuromuscular responses as if you were having the actual experience. The more real you can make it the better. For example, ensure that you engage all the senses, duplicating the emotions you may feel, the background activity that will be going on, the lights, smells, sounds etc.
It seems that these mental images created in the brain actually stimulate muscular contractions so minute that no noticeable movement actually takes place but the same neuro-pathway is used — establishing a ‘memory’ of that action.
Symbolic Learning Theory
The second theory is the symbolic learning theory, which postulates that imagery can actually create a blueprint or a coding system of movement patterns in the central nervous system. This theory is more widely accepted and coincides with positive reinforcement.
How to Apply Visualization in Your Life
Visualization has many applications in personal development. Whether you want to establish new habits, improve your health, remove your fears of public speaking, or learn new skills, visualization will help you achieve those things.
Before you can apply visualization to improve your life, you need to first understand the correct process involved. An effective visualization session must follow these five steps:
- Relaxed Body & Mind
- Third-Person View
- First-Person View
- Successful Outcome
Relaxed Body & Mind
Before you set off visualizing what your desired outcome should be, you need to completely relax your body and mind. One of the simplest ways is to simply lie down, close your eyes, and take a few deep breaths, allowing all the tension and stress to leave your body and mind.
Before you can ever be able to perform your desired action in a real-life scenario, you need to understand what that action looks like. For this reason, you first picture seeing yourself doing it from a third-person perspective. That is, watching yourself do it as if you’re an outside observer. What this does is it helps you understand completely what a correct action looks like.
In order to make visualization work for you, you need to convince the mind that it is YOU doing the action. Here’s where you see yourself doing it as if inside your body.
The final step is intensity. Unless you can duplicate in your mind everything that happens in reality, imagery will not be as effective. You must be aware of the environment, the feelings on your skin, the smells around you, the sights and sounds — engaging all of your senses. It also helps to picture yourself in the exact setting/environment where you’d be performing this action.
The more real and vivid you can make it the stronger he neuro-pathways and the clearer the neurological blueprint will become. You can get this to such a high degree that the mind cannot distinguish the difference. For instance, in the book Psycho-Cybernetics, they use several examples of things that happen to a person when under hypnosis that proves the power of the mind. In one example, a person was told they are touching a hot burner but in reality they were touching an ice cube. Their mind was so convinced that they were being burned that their hand developed blisters as if touching what their brain was being told they were touching.
This goes without saying, but you need to ensure that you’re picturing yourself succeeding at the action you’re visualizing. So make sure that it is very positive and incredibly successful; again, the more vivid the better.
Applications of Imagery
One of the greatest applications of the power of visualization was with Colonel George Hall of the Air Force. Hall was a Vietnam POW locked up in a North Vietnamese prison for 7 years. While locked up, Hall would play a full game of golf in his mind every day. Then, a week after being released, he ended up shooting a 76 at the Greater New Orleans Open!
Arnold Schwarzenegger is a big proponent of applying visualization in improving one’s life.
“When I was very young, I visualized myself being and having what it was I wanted. Mentally I never had any doubts about it. The mind is really so incredible. Before I won my first Mr. Universe, I walked around the tournament like I owned it. The title was already mine. I had won it so many times in my mind that there was no doubt I would win it. Then, when I moved on to the movies, the same thing. I visualized myself being a successful actor and earning big money. I could feel and taste success. I just knew it would all happen.”
Here are some practical applications where visualization can be used in your own personal development:
- Health & Fitness: Envision seeing yourself having the body and the health you desire. You can also apply visualization in your fitness goals. For example, in weightlifting, before a set, visualize yourself going through each of the reps, seeing and feeling yourself achieving the goal you set for number of repetitions, amount of weight etc.
- Changing Dietary Habits: Much of the crap that we put into our bodies has become second nature. Break the cycle by developing a habit of choosing good foods over bad ones. You can ‘practice’ this in your mind with visualization. See yourself being faced with some of your own personal offending foods and visualize yourself instead choosing healthier options. Again make this experience in the first person and as vivid as possible.
- Becoming an Early Riser: One of the things that helped me to become a habitual early riser (5am) is visualization. At night, as I was lying in my bed, I would visualize myself getting up right away when the alarm went off. I pictured turning off the alarm, stepping out of bed, feeling the refreshing, cool morning air enter my lungs, and stretching to get the blood flowing. I would practice this visualization around five times per night.
This really solidified what for me was the hardest part of getting up in the morning — getting out of the warm bed. Up to that time, I’d developed a habit of hitting the snooze button over and over again. Visualization helped to ‘rewire’ the connections and change my habit.
- Giving a Public Speech: Even public speaking can be improved with visualization. Again, making it as vivid as possible, see yourself standing up at the podium (or wherever you’ll be speaking) and picture the crowd. See yourself in the first person, speaking with a confident bearing, engaging the audience who is rapt with attention to what you have to say. Feel your body relaxed and at ease. Hear the confident tone of your voice. You can even practice the words you’re about to say. Again, the more real you can make it, the better.
While powerful, visualization is not the magic bullet that promises success overnight. No amount of practice or imagery training will do that. But over time you will see drastic improvements in those areas you choose to visualize. Remember what James Allen, author of As a Man Thinketh said,
“Thought allied fearlessly to purpose becomes creative force: he who knows this is ready to become something higher and stronger than a mere bundle of wavering thoughts and fluctuating sensations; he who does this has become the conscious and intelligent wielder of his mental powers.”